Medieval Alchemy

© algolonline | 123rf.com

© algolonline | 123rf.com

Three years after the publication of the fourth edition of the DSM in 1994, the US became the only country in the world to allow direct to the consumer advertising of pharmaceuticals. Now there’s New Zealand. Soon after the approval, pharmaceutical advertising was everywhere in the US. Over the next decade, from 1997 to 2007, drug companies tripled their spending on marketing. Everyday problems were being portrayed as unrecognized psychiatric disorders. The chair of the DSM-IV, Allen Frances, admitted they had failed to anticipate how easily their manual could be utilized to promote pharmaceutical sales. They were not able to stem the flood of “false demand” instigated by the marketing done by drug companies. “Within a few years, it was clear the drug companies had won and we had lost.”

We should have been far more active in educating the field and prospective patients about the risks of overdiagnosis. There should have been prominent cautions in DSM-IV warning about overdiagnosis and providing tips on how to avoid it. We should have organized professional and public conferences and educational campaigns to counteract drug company propaganda. None of this occurred to anyone at the time. No one dreamed that drug company advertising would explode three years after the publication of the DSM-IV or that there would be the huge epidemics of ADHD, autism, and bipolar disorder—and therefore no one felt any urgency to prevent them. . . . We missed the boat. (Allen Frances, Saving Normal, p. 74)

Frances said the evidence for this diagnostic inflation is clear. There has been a fortyfold increase in childhood bipolar disorder. Autism diagnoses have increased twentyfold. “Attention deficit/hyperactivity has tripled; and adult bipolar disorder doubled.” The result has been huge profits for the drug companies.

At the very top of the Pharma hit parade are the antipsychotics at a resounding $18 billion a year. Antidepressants produce a hardy $12 billion a year, despite the fact that many are now off  patent and sold in cheaper generic versions. Fifteen years ago, stimulants were a rounding error in drug company sales at a measly $59 million a year. Now with direct-to-consumer advertising and heavy marketing to doctors, sales have been juiced up to a hefty $8 billion a year. And because primary care doctors love to prescribe them, antianxiety agents are eight in sales among drug classes—even though they probably do much more harm than good. (Saving Normal, p. 105)

Patients regularly misdiagnosed themselves and asked their doctor for “the magic pill that would correct their chemical imbalance,” just as the advertisements suggested. And as requested, doctors prescribed the medications. “Patients who requested a drug they had seen advertised were seventeen times more likely to walk out of the office with a prescription.” Primary care physicians (PCPs), such as general practitioners, obstetrician-gynecologists and pediatricians, now prescribe most of the psychiatric drugs in the US.

Using data from August 2006 to July 2007, Ryan DuBosar noted in “Psychotropic drug prescriptions by medical specialty” that 59% of the psychotropic prescriptions were written by PCPs. Breaking down the drug by class, PCPs prescribed 37% of the antipsychotics, 52% of the stimulants, 62% of the antidepressants and 65% of the anxiolytics (anti-anxiety meds). Frances said: “Too often, drugs are used promiscuously in a way that approximates the quackish practice of medieval alchemists.”

On November 17, 2015, the American Medical Association (AMA) adopted a new policy that calls for a ban on direct to the consumer advertising of prescription drugs. The new policy calls for a physician task force and launching an advocacy campaign to promote prescription drug affordability.

The AMA Board Chair-elect, Patrice Harris, said the vote reflects concerns among physicians about Pharma’s commercially-driven promotions and the impact of marketing costs in escalating drug prices. She said direct-to-consumer advertising also created a demand for new and more expensive drugs, even when these drugs may not be appropriate. “Patient care can be compromised and delayed when prescription drugs are unaffordable and subject to coverage limitations by the patient’s health plan. In a worst-case scenario, patients forego necessary treatments when drugs are too expensive.”

Reporting for Reuters, Susan Kelly noted that the AMA did not say how the ban could be overturned. There have been a series of court decisions determining that the ads are a form of commercial speech protected by the U.S. Constitution. PhRMA, the largest trade group for the pharmaceutical industry in the US, said the ads increase consumer awareness of available treatments for diseases. PhRMa spokesperson, Tine Stow said: “Providing scientifically accurate information to patients so that they are better informed about their health care and treatment options is the goal of direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising about prescription medicines.” REALLY?

Allen Frances said that Big Pharma seems to feel it is above the law. “Almost all of the companies have absorbed huge fines and even criminal penalties as punishment for their illegal sales practices. He published a chart in Saving Normal that he referred to as the drug company hall of shame. It contained information on fines and settlements by Pharma for off-label promotion (which is illegal at this time) as well as shady marketing and fraudulent misbranding. The sum total of the fines between 2004 and 2012 was $12.06 billion.

Yet a Pharma company has been in court attempting to assert that it has “a constitutional right to share certain information about its products with doctors.” The drug companies have been increasing their pressure on the FDA to relax its guidelines around off-label marketing. See “Pharma Goes to Court” for more on this issue.

Frances said it is our fault that we allowed drug companies to prey on our weakness. “Diagnostic questions should be decided by what is best for the patient, not what is best for the doctor or the APA [American Psychiatric Association] or Pharma or the consumer group.” All this could be reversed if we had the political will to do so. He proposed fourteen ways to tame Pharma. The top six were:

  • No more direct-to-consumer advertising on TV, in magazines, or on the internet.
  • No more drug company-sponsored junkets, dinners, promotional gifts, or continuing medical education for doctors or medical students.
  • No more financial support for medical professional organizations.
  •  No more beautiful salespeople congregating in the doctors’ waiting room.
  • No more free samples.
  • No more off-label marketing.

These changes strike at the heart of Pharma’s marketing strategy, so it won’t be easy to get Congress to approve the changes. Pharma outspends all other industries in its lobbying efforts. Since 1998, the pharmaceutical industry has spent $3,716,474,293 lobbying Congress. In 2017 Pharma has spent $209,395,967. Annually they outspend all other industries. See OpenSecrets.org for more information on this issue. The OpenSecrets data was updated to reflect spending since this article was originally published in 2015.